Destroyer (2018) Film Review from the 62nd Annual London Film Festival, a movie directed by Karyn Kusama, starring Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, Jade Pettyjohn, Scoot McNairy, Toby Huss and James Jordan.
The world of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is too dirty. All hope is lost in the past and everything good is vanquished or in the process of dying. That despair is fittingly encapsulated by the face of Nicole Kidman’s character here – with dark circles covering half her cheeks. The great actress is surrounded by solid performances but her character is the only one the audience can latch on to and feel something. The film undeniably achieves a gloomy, disturbing grit of its own.
After 2 hours of nearly uninterrupted violence, shootouts, substance abuse and a general feeling of disgust, the creation of a gloomy atmosphere is rather unavoidable. In between, there is very little positive emotion. When it arrives, it comes in the later stages of the film when the audience has already gone too numb to care. This is a dark police story that works because of the strengths of that genre – plot twists, thrilling moments of danger and gunfights.
The story follows LAPD detective Erin Bell, played by Kidman, who was placed undercover with a California desert gang. The operation resulted in a tragedy that wrecked her life and years later she is heading out to finish the job. Sebastian Stan plays her police colleague, who also contributes to the film’s emotional weight. Toby Kebbell ends up being a respectably thrilling antagonist and Tatiana Maslany does a solid job as a gang member.
Nicole Kidman is Terrific
Nicole Kidman’s performance is very good. Her eyes shoot daggers, her tired mannerisms believably hint at the character’s traumatic history and vast experience. The actress has never shied away from roles that require her to display extreme vulnerability or go through straight up embarrassment. The role of Detective Bell is no exception. When the script calls for a heartbreak, she delivers. When she needs to showcase technical proficiency and her physical training during a gunfight, she pulls it off. As usual, Kidman gives it her all and steals the whole show from start to finish.
Solid Action Sequences
The action sequences in the film work well. There is nothing as thrilling as the chase sequence in David Fincher’s Seven or the white-knuckled thrills of Antoine Fuqua’s End of Watch or this year’s Widows by Steve McQueen. Destroyer’s action relies more on frenetic editing and the damage incurred by human bodies. The best action scene is a bank robbery, in which Kidman faces a group of robbers with minimal reinforcements. The gunfight works primarily because of the odds and Kidman’s intensity. Watching the actress handle a firearm with that hateful blaze in her eyes is something you never knew you needed in your life before seeing Destroyer.
Failure and Overcoming It
The film has a familiar but rousing theme of failure and overcoming it. Erin has failed in many ways – as a mother, as a working woman and pretty much keeps doing so for a big part of the film. The moment when she finally manages to turn the tables is definitely not wasted. Just like in the case of the film’s gunfights and actions scenes, it is a bit too reliant on gruesome imagery. But, when it comes and you see Kidman taking things in her own hands, you will want to cheer one way or another. It is a fairly predictable outcome but the acting of that particular scene and all the filth and negativity that came before build it up quite successfully.
The Emotional Core of the Film Suffers
What doesn’t work as well is the set up of the protagonist’s relationships with her closest people. Those ties are what humanizes Erin and they are sorely lacking in the first half of the film, which is when we are supposed to grow close to the character. There is some set up when it comes down to Stan’s character – the way they meet, the way they grow close to each other. When it comes down to Bell’s daughter, however, all we get are two by-the-numbers scenes of a mother and a daughter fighting and a mother and a daughter making amends.
Bottom line is, the film’s first half is almost completely filled with nothing but the depressing and hostile criminal environment, in which Kidman’s character exists. The problem is she doesn’t seem all that different from it and apart from the fact that this character is played by one of the most beloved actresses of all time, there is no real reason to care for her. We know so little about the life she misses and lost and that information seems to be kept only for plot twists’ sake.
For the longest time, she doesn’t seem to care and that’s only natural – she is a hardened, battle-tested warrior. But just because she doesn’t show any emotion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel it. How can we, as an audience, connect with her otherwise? When there are flashbacks to a brighter time of her life or moments, when Erin finally displays real human emotion, they come too late in the film. By then, we have gotten used to this stone-cold, almost indifferent protagonist and we have reciprocated her feelings.
Prolonged Ending Scene
Unfortunately, the ending falls flat and it is one of the most memorable recent examples of a scene that outstays its welcome. It drags for far too long up until the point when you feel like the rising music is desperately begging you to feel more than you are. The final scene tries to give the film a grand sense of closure but the emotional punch doesn’t land. The reason is precisely that lack of set up for the good stuff in the life of Kidman’s character. The argument may be made there that there weren’t too many positives in her life and that her story simply isn’t a happy one. Be that as it may, the emotional impact ends up being smothered more or less – whether it is because of the overwhelmingly dreary script or its weird approach to the characters’ humanization.
Destroyer is a solid piece of detective crime drama film-making and at the center of it is a highly impressive Nicole Kidman performance. The film successfully depicts the gruesome looks and feel of the criminal underworld. Most of the film’s heart gets murdered underneath brutal plot twists, endless swearing, disturbing imagery and actions. Destroyer is entertaining and at times – quite riveting but it does reach for more than it can be.
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